Diversity isn’t taught – it’s experienced. And that experience starts early. Early childhood education teachers are tasked with many difficult tasks over the course of a school year and as a result, diversity and multiculturalism can be easily shelved as part of a unit or as an add-on to curriculum. But in order for these lessons to be meaningful, they need to be part of everyday life in the classroom.
A critical part of diversity is children seeing themselves and their families represented in their early learning environments, and this includes the people who are in the classrooms with children every day. Diversity is a continued celebration and education of what makes people different. It cannot be taught directly as part of a unit, is not dressing in appropriative costumes without context and is much more than Black History Month. Children should learn that there are ways to see the world that are very different from their own.
While instinctively we want to respond by filling the classroom with more diverse and representative classroom materials like posters, books and dolls, we also have to look at another critical part of classroom life – teachers.
Today, the diversity gap in teachers is troublesome and we’ve only just started being able to measure its impacts. About 80 percent of public school teachers are white, while just 48 percent of public school students are white. This means that a child of any race could easily move from kindergarten through 12th grade and only be taught by white teachers.
How did this happen?
Brown v. Board of Education was supposed to integrate schools “with deliberate speed”. Instead, schools became more segregated, as white superintendents, administrators and parents made sure that they could uphold de facto segregation for as long as they could. While the student populations diversified, teachers did not. In the decades that followed the Brown decision, about 38,000 black teachers lost their jobs – an estimated third of the nation’s black teachers.
Black teachers were considered inferior to white teachers and in some cases, a threat to children in their classrooms – even though black teachers were just as qualified (and in some cases, more qualified) than their white counterparts.
The unintended effects of Brown v. Board of Education continue to impact us:
- Because schools remain segregated, it is exceedingly difficult to boost black children, especially those from low-income families. These families are often districted for schools that under-resourced and are in low-income neighborhoods, where outside stressors like economic hardship, illness and unstable housing can make it difficult for children to focus on academics, and for teachers to teach.
- Schools remain segregated because neighborhoods are. The Federal Housing Administration’s notorious “redlining” policy, in which the agency refused to insure mortgages in black and low-income neighborhoods, still impacts the way American neighborhoods look today.
- In the pre-Brown era, teaching used to be one of the few surefire paths to the middle class for educated black people. So when a third of black teachers lost their jobs in the years following the Brown decision, the black community also lost role models and advocates for black students, as well as the model that teaching was a viable and worthy profession.
As students read and progress to complex works of literature, they need “mirrors and windows”. They need to be able to see themselves in the stories and develop the ability to look outside of themselves and experience other worlds. Diverse teachers can provide that mirror.
Sarah Leibel, lecturer in the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program, said in an interview: “It’s really important that students have people who reflect back to them their language, their culture, their ethnicity, their religion. It doesn’t mean all the people in their lives have to do that mirroring, but they should have some. And we know that in the teaching profession, there really are not enough mirrors”.
Thanks to many of their own life experiences, teachers of color enter the classroom with an inherent understanding of what the students in their classrooms are experiencing. That representation can help remedy the cyclical recruiting challenges that schools often have as they struggle to hire teachers of color, especially black teachers.
Dawn Tafari, assistant professor of education at Winston-Salem State University, said in an interview with WUNC that same-race teachers are especially important for children of color: “If they [children] don’t see teachers who look like them, if they don’t see teachers who appreciate what they bring to the classroom, the cultural capital, their nuances, the way they dress, the music they like, if those things are not valued in the classroom, then they won’t see the school as a safe place, they won’t want to stay."
Representation helps make schools a place where children feel welcome and validated. It also makes schools a place where they’d consider returning, as teachers.
To learn more about Brown v. Board of Education, how it impacted the Brown family and the lasting effects it had on schools in Topeka, Kansas and beyond, check out this episode of Revisionist History.